Interview with the Absinthe Minded Professors
I was recently given the privilege to interview one of my absolute favorite steampunk performance art troupes, the Absinthe Minded Professors. I expected it to include more than a few surprising, and possibly even baffling, responses as they are routinely as eccentric as they are entertaining and talented. They did not disappoint! Here is how it went:
Convention Fans: What was your first exposure to steampunk as an actual subculture (as opposed to say steampunk movies or fiction books)?
Joshua: I wasn’t aware of steampunk as a subculture. Until Michi suggested we work on a steampunk project together. I had seen people dressed in the clothes but never them together in mass. So my first exposure to the subculture was a gig.
Michi: My husband’s LARP friends had a group called “Steam Century.” They were dressing up in old military uniforms and putting on mystery murder games for the public to play at conventions and such. They described it to me as “starting with the past and creating a fictional future.” I was intrigued, and felt it was more interesting than attempting to ‘reenact’ history.
The first ‘official’ steampunk event I went to was a “Darke Carnival,” where I met a husband & wife sword-swallowing duo (http://theswordswallowers.com/) and performed with various musicians (http://www.lonnieknight.com/) (http://www.eliaugust.com/). The Steam Century people were running carnival games like “Shake hands with the Devil.” People were wandering around in pith helmets and bustles. After growing up inside the weird alternative culture that is renaissance festivals, I felt right at home.
CF: When did you first encounter people in steampunk attire that was distinctive enough to really draw attention and what effect did it have on you?
Michi: I entered this genre, as I do with most things, from the stage. Looking out at the Chicago steampunks from our stage at the Bristol Renaissance Festival, I saw two female mad hatters, crave-worthy gowns and dashing adventurers, and some lovely creations like a bandolier full of variously colored liquids. I loved the fantasy and forethought people were putting into their costumes. It wasn’t just the attire though – I enjoyed the fact that most of these people were changing their speech patterns a bit. “How civilized,” I thought. “Everyone is ‘ma-am’ing each other!”
Joshua: I’ll second that the first time I was really layed out was on Steampunk invasion Day at Bristol Renaissance Faire. Mannerisms more than clothes. And I get a kick out of always being referred to as “good sir.”
CF: When did you first decide to develop a fictional steampunk character personae, and what do you think motivated you to do so?
Michi: Here’s the basic conversation I had with Joshua:
Michi: “We should work together.”
Shua: “Sure, you could play some celtic fiddle tunes for me.”
Michi: “Ummm….I prefer Slavic. Got any Babi Yar fairytales?”
Shua: “Not really.”
Michi: “How about this thing they call steampunk? I don’t really know what it is, but I can wear my corset.”
Joshua: I remember it a little differently. I remember thinking we could do Celtic stories together on automatic and Michi expressed that she would be bored with that. I was commenting on Facebook I was going back to my Victorian Science Fiction roleplaying game campaign. Michi said hey we should do steampunk. I told her I didn’t have any steampunk tales and she said “it occurs to me that you could write them and the 19th century is the era for the violin” And we were off. Suddenly I became more excited about writing these monologues than any stories I had ever written previously.
CF: What prompted your choices in development of your personal character?
Joshua: Because we decided on the name the Absinthe Minded Professors I decided to be a somewhat dignified but surreal scientist. I decided on an absence of gear as is expected in Steampunk. I wanted to look efficient and not burdened with junk as a storyteller its important to be somewhat of a blank canvas. I decided every piece of gear on my person I would use in our show. Our tales have also helped dictate character choices.
Michi: See conversation above. Next, came choice of clothing. The “Alice in Wonderland” movie came out around the time of our very first performance, and Shua said “You could be an urchin I found on the street.” So I went to Salvation Army and bought the largest pinafore I could find. However, I felt a schoolgirl wasn’t very believable as a “professor” – and I didn’t want people laughing through our piece about Jack the Ripper – so I went with a more serious tone and a longer skirt, and started tying brass knobs and drawer pulls onto every available inch.
CF: In what ways is your character like you, and how are they different?
Michi: I don’t speak onstage. My husband would say that’s very unlike me.
Joshua: Well both of us are absent minded and have a tendency to have acute and lack of observation. My character is a snappy dresser and I’m kind of a slob. I remember running into some steampunks at a Rasputina show in my Civies. Looks of dissappointment ensued.
CF: How are these similarities helpful? Do you ever find them unhelpful as in making it more difficult for your fans to notice that you shifted into the “in character mode” to perform or entertain?
Joshua: I think the steampunk like any imaginitive subculture [are divided] between those that are into the make believe aspect and those that aren’t. Sometimes a character division is beneficial and sometimes it isn’t. When performing for the lay public, which we do just as often as Steampunks, we have found it beneficial to introduce ourselves and then go into character.
I realized early on that thanks to the vague setting of the 1890’s, it’s a great excuse to re-visit all those classical tunes I learned as a kid and completely screw them up. I can just channel the visage of the snobbiest musicians I knew in orchestra days. They really haven’t changed since the 1800’s anyway.
CF: At what point did this steampunk personae become more than just a guide for wardrobe development and begin to be a character you acted out or used as a personality pattern to guide your responses or behaviors in a public setting?
Michi: I would say it hasn’t crossed over into my ‘real’ life – but my friends might answer you differently on that. I’m having so much fun I talk about it all the time.
Joshua: I agree with my partner. The Professors may be on my mind frequently but I have perhaps too many other fictional personas to make it a way of life.
CF: When and with what basic plan did you decide to make character acting in a public setting a significant part of your steampunk existence? Or if you do not do character acting much at this point, what other roles do you most often perform in the crew.
Joshua: It’s the other way around for me. I am a character actor as a professional storyteller. I’ve most often told stories as a character. So steampunk became part of my character actor existence and not the other way around. The roles I play as a storyteller are every character that enters the story. The base though is the professor and for that reason we don’t consider ourselves a crew but a faculty.
Michi: As a musician, I have an unfair advantage in that I’ve never had to think much about character. Working with a storyteller is giving me a great opportunity to develop physical comedy, facial reactions, and other things I don’t get to do with my band – such as using space to make an effect, and little references to classical or popular tunes as “musical jokes.”
CF: When you are at steampunk, anime, or scifi events, do you often use spontaneous method acting? In other words, is it common for you to suddenly drop into character in order to respond in an entertaining way to questions, or start into a familiar “in character” interaction with a crew mate, or even draw them into the act of telling war stories about adventures on the airship, road, sailing ship, vampire hunting etc.?
Joshua: Michi and I have a lot of fun wandering the streets playing our characters as a method of hawking our shows to get people to various spaces. I should tell you that we don’t solely work steampunk events and playing with the general public and giving them a quick education in steampunk as our characters. This is a lot of fun as we are way out of their world.
Michi: I had the most fun at Dorian’s Parlor, wandering around after our shows with my gas mask on and playing my kazoo at people. Given what I do onstage, I suppose that’s as ‘in-character’ as it gets. Tho to be honest (and I’m not sure even Shua knows this!) while killing time at the Midway Village museum, I did give a demonstration on how to turn a violin into a trumpet – by using the conical bore of a teacup. Everything we do is spontaneous – and ever-changing.
CF: When doing character acting, do you more often get into character and then simply respond to events and conversation that spontaneously occurs “in character” or do you more often use a pre-set multiple person script, prepared situations with accomplices, or prepared monologue. (as in telling tall tales as a steampunk story teller)
Joshua: We will often use set hooks to engage people. And then they will throw us delightfully off guard. Treating interuptions as invitatons but never expecting them.
CF: Do you do more character acting in video or in person and what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages between the two?
Joshua: I’m a live performer and I hate watching myself on video. There are people that are personally engaging but are not made for the camera. Playing in the 19th century I consider this an advantage. Also the sort of entertainment is interactive and involves the perceptors. The idea of a camera generally creates a third wall of glass.
CF: What training, formal, informal, or recreational (such as fantasy role playing games) do you think has helped you to learn to “get into character” sufficiently to believably portray your steampunk personae?
Joshua: My formal training I suppose would include my schooling. I went to film school for screenwriting which is certainly beneficial since creating characters is name of the game, I went [to the] Ringling Clown College and that has helped the mad scientist prop maker in me. Interesting that you mention fantasy role playing games because they played a large part in my genesis as a storyteller. Most professional storytellers I know have never dabbled in fantasy roleplay. I find this odd because it is interactive storytelling. Regardless it makes it difficult for most of my colleagues to understand my life and the venues I work in of imaginitive subcultures.
Michi: I’m an accountant. I need a fantasy life. Seventeen years of classical violin lessons do come in handy sometimes.
CF: Have you made significant changes regarding your level of involvement in character acting recently, and if so, what prompted this. What are your plans for this in the future?
Joshua: The commitment has not changed just the roles. I will tell you that I’m more enthusiastic about the Absinthe Minded Professors than anything I’ve done previously
Michi: See above about all the fun new things I get to try onstage. I’m having a blast.
CF: Do you have any comedy experience in the past, and how has this affected your current work?
Joshua: A professional storyteller is a comedian of sorts. He or she is just not focused on the punch line just delivering the punch of the situation. I.E. he or she does not operate on one liners but many liners that build. Storytelling is what stand up used to be. Bill Cosby may be called a comedian but he was a storyteller.
Michi: Folk music. Enough said.
CF: Do you have any training in sleight of hand or magic tricks and if so, have you worked that into the act?
Joshua: I have been a magician on and off since I was eight years old and have learned from some of the greatest in the world I’m forty three now. There is magic in the Absinthe Minded Professors show but less so than any of the other surreal magical personas that I play. Over the years I have made my life as seven different personas most of whom use magic as a tool. For the professors Magic is used as a little visual spice along the way to keep us in the realm of mad science The true magic is in our mind twisting stories.
Michi: Nothing but fiddling, my dear.
CF: As you and your crew are known for steampunk ensembles, accessories, and special devices for your performances, what would you like to share about background or previous experiences that you think helped you to develop these talents in steampunk design and fabrication?
Michi: My largest and most popular prop “the mechanical bustle” was quite literally taken off the wall at a wedding. Our friends were the last wedding to occur at a foreclosed log cabin venue – the owners were there and willing to sell anything, so being the good geeks we are of course the groom had the proper bit for the cordless drill to remove the decorations from the walls. It went from a wedding to a garage sale in no time flat. My husband got a WW1 helmet. I saw this huge thing on the wall that I thought was a coffee grinder (turns out – it’s a grain distributor). I turned the crank and it made a big rusty noise. I had to have it. Of course, I’d played the music for the wedding so in thanks the groom bought it for me. So you could say, I went to a wedding with my husband and took home a big old cranky thing.
I brought it to the “skylab” when Shua & Misti were rehearsing and we started making plans to incorporate the grain distributor into our act. I think this is a good example of how things have developed in this act – instinctively.
Joshua: Accident is the mother of invention. My greatest inspiration as a fabricator of mad scientist junk is my brother. He’s a pupeteer that makes most of his reanimations out of garbage.
CF: Are any of your members experienced in juggling, gymnastics, or similar physical skills, and if so, how is that used in your performances?
Joshua: I am an experienced juggler and balance artist but don’t use that for this character he is too dignified for that sort of thing. I use these things in my performances as other characters such as the Raven who walks on a ball and uses martial arts fans for his wings.
Michi: Not me, but we have been considering hiring a clockwork bellydancer….
CF: Do any of your fellow crew members currently or have plans to do any singing related to their steampunk character or storyline at steampunk or related events?
Michi: Misti is the singer. I only scream.
Joshua: Yeah we don’t want to do much singing. We want to make it clear that we are not a band. We tell musically accompanied stories. In time we may add more singing to utilize Misti’s awesome talent in that regard.
CF: Do any of your fellow crew members currently or have plans to do any dancing related to their Steampunk character or storyline at Steampunk or related events?
Michi: Misti and Shua did some lovely dancing at the Ball last summer in Milwaukee.
Joshua: I plan on dancing with Dr. Bernard every chance I get but no performances of dance.
CF: Is there anything else you would like to add about any aspect of steampunk performance art or about steampunk as a lifestyle?
Michi: I am utterly pleased at the proliferation of this genre. I really hadn’t imagined it taking off like this. The geeks really have taken over the world!
Joshua: Here here Dr.
For more information visit The Absinth Minded Professors’ Website .